In the wake of a travel alert advising pregnant women to postpone travel to several countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America where the mosquito-borne Zika virus has been tentatively linked to birth defects, the travel industry last week was grappling with how best to advise clients as well as manage Zika-related cancellations and rebookings.  

Connie Miller, a Travel Leaders associate in Omaha, Neb., said she had one family cancel a trip to Mexico because a member of the traveling party is pregnant. And Sally Jane Smith, owner of TravelSmiths in Point Pleasant, N.J., reported that three pregnant clients had canceled trips.

“They don’t want to take the chance,” Smith said.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a travel alert for Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, all countries and territories where the Zika virus has been found. The CDC has since added other destinations to the list.

The alert followed reports from Brazil of incomplete brain development (microcephaly) and other risks, including death, in babies of mothers who were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant. Until more is known, the CDC recommends that pregnant women consider postponing travel to the destinations listed above.

Aside from the adverse effects on babies born to mothers infected by the virus, four out of five who acquire Zika have few or no symptoms.

Andrew Bonwit, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Loyola University Health System, said that Zika behaves similarly to rubella in that it is generally mild, unless contracted by a nonimmune pregnant woman.

He said pregnant women should definitely heed the CDC’s precautions and if they are traveling in areas where Zika is found, use commonly available insect repellents, such as DEET and picaridin, which are considered safe for pregnant women to use; he added that it isn’t necessary or more effective to use DEET with a higher concentration than 30%.

In light of the CDC travel alert, cruise lines said they would be working with pregnant passengers who need to rebook their cruise.

All Carnival Corp. brands will allow pregnant women to cancel their cruises in exchange for a future cruise credit for them and their traveling companions to rebook at a later time. Norwegian Cruise Line officials also said the line will work with any woman who is pregnant and past the point at which she can cancel her cruise without penalty to come up with a solution.

Vacation packagers, too, said they would be working with clients to accommodate changes. Classic Vacations’ senior director of business operations, Denis Fastert, said the company had not yet seen any decrease in bookings specifically related to Zika but that for clients who don’t have travel insurance, the company will work with air and hotel partners to try to waive cancellation fees, refund as much as possible or offer to rebook them.

Pleasant Holidays had received some requests last week to change travel plans based on the CDC’s Zika advisory, and the company said it waived its change and cancellation fees for those customers and is prepared to do the same for others.

Travel industry lawyer Mark Pestronk advised agents to warn their clients about Zika, saying that agents are legally required to tell clients about things that are known to them but would not typically be known to consumers.

In his opinion, he did not believe the typical consumer would be aware of Zika based on general media coverage. Pestronk also encourages agents to have clients sign a disclaimer that directs them to the CDC for medical information.   

Steve Loucks, chief communications officer for Travel Leaders Group, said that once the Brazilian Health Ministry linked Zika with birth defects last month, “we immediately began arming our agents with information they can use when discussing this mosquito-borne virus and associated destinations with their clients, especially those who are pregnant.”

Tom Stieghorst contributed to this report.


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